The Paralyzed President Who Lifted a Paralyzed World

Dec 18, 2012David B. Woolner

The Republicans who voted against the ratification of the UN convention on disabilities are erasing a crucial part of our history.

It is not only that the lights of peace blaze in our great cities and glow in our towns and villages—that laughter and music still ring out from coast to coast—that we will return to safe beds tonight…

It is because we believe in and insist on the right of the helpless, the right of the weak, and the right of the crippled everywhere to play their part in life—and survive.

It is because we know instinctively that this right of the unfortunate comes under our free people's philosophy from the bottom up and can never be imposed from the top down. —Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 30, 1941.

In recent years, we have recognized that people with disabilities are integral to our society, that we cannot afford to waste their talents, nor can we proclaim our beloved America demonstrably–the home of the brave, the land of the free–as we overlook the abilities that trump any disabilities.

The approaching vote on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a proud moment for the Senate, the latest chapter of an untold story including the Americans that say: no first class democracy can tolerate second class citizens. —Former Republican Senate Majority Leader, Robert Dole, December 4, 2012

The recent decision by Senate Republicans to reject the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) serves as yet another sad example of just how pervasive—and effective—the fear mongering and misinformation tactics of the extreme right have become in our society. The convention, after all, had the strong support of such Republican luminaries as Senator John McCain, former governor and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, and of course former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole. Yet in spite of their repeated assurances that the non-binding convention—which does not have the force of international law—would in no way infringe on U.S. sovereignty, 38 Republican Senators voted against the measure, largely based on the false claim spearheaded by the former conservative Senator Rick Santorum that ratification of the convention would have given UN bureaucrats “oversight” over such issues as “the healthcare and education choices parents with special needs kids make.”

Nothing could of course be further from the truth. The convention, like many other UN provisions on human rights, only establishes an international committee that makes recommendations to national governments, not laws, as part of their ongoing efforts to monitor a given state’s progress in achieving the non-discriminatory standards set by the treaty. Moreover, as the articles in convention are largely based on the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which received broad bipartisan support in Congress and was signed by Republican President George H. W. Bush in 1990, and requires no change in U.S. law, the conservative right’s claims that ratification of the convention would somehow “put the state under the direction of the UN” are simply not true. Ironically, Mr. Santorum himself admitted as much when he asserted as part of his argument against the vote that there was no point in ratifying the treaty as it “would do nothing to force any foreign government to change their laws or to spend resources on the disabled.” That, he said, “was for governments to decide.”

Mr. Santorum’s confusion and ignorance about the jurisdiction of this convention—and the UN in general—is all the more disturbing because it represents a victory for the anti-internationalist, isolationist wing of the republic party. These are the same ideologues who are quite willing to highjack the common good on such issues as the fiscal cliff or debt ceiling for the sake of ideology. Thanks to their anti-government and anti-UN obsessions, the more than 600 million people living with disabilities worldwide will no longer be able to look to the United States for leadership in support of their fundamental right to live full and productive lives, free from both the physical and political barriers that all too often stand in their way.

Numerous editorials in the wake of the Republican Senators’ actions have characterized the vote as a shameful travesty of justice. But it is more than that. It is also a travesty of history. In their chauvinistic fervor to protect America from “overzealous international organizations” and supposedly supranational bodies, they forget that it was the United States that largely created the United Nations. Worse still, they have also forgotten why the UN was created and remain largely ignorant of the origins of its name or the decisive role that the average American played in bringing it into existence.

The term “United Nations” refers to the wartime alliance that Franklin Roosevelt helped craft in the wake of America’s entry into the Second World War. Its first formal appearance came on January 1, 1942, just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when representatives of 26 nations joined Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in signing a “Declaration by the United Nations.” In signing it, the states involved pledged to join a “common struggle” to “defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice” not only in their “own lands” but also in “other lands,” against the “savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world.”

Millions of men and women across the nation, including such World War II veterans as George Herbert Walker Bush, Robert Dole, and the late Senator Daniel Inouye, risked their lives in support of the United Nations. By the time the United Nations Organization was born in April of 1945, over 400,000 Americans had died in the effort to bring the United Nations to victory.

On the very day of his death and less than two weeks prior to the opening of the United Nations Conference that would give birth to the United Nations, President Roosevelt reflected on the importance of American leadership in the world in an address he planned to deliver on Jefferson Day. The president planned to remind the American people that “great power involves great responsibility” and that “the mere conquest of our enemies is not enough.” We must, he insisted, “go on to do all in our power to conquer the doubts and the fears, the ignorance and the greed” that made the horror of war possible. We must, he continued, face the “preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace.”

It was this spirit that gave birth to the United Nations and this spirit that drove young men like President George H.W. Bush and Senators Dole an Inouye to risk life and limb in the service of not only their country but also of humanity. It was this spirit that made their sacrifice and wartime wounds and life-long impairments worth the price, and this spirit that has been so sadly and callously abandoned by the 38 Republican Senators who voted against the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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